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The Dayton Daily News requested travel records using Ohio’s public records laws after a reader and Kettering resident contacted the I-Team concerned about city council travel. This comes as voters weigh a city charter amendment to limit council pay and length of service.
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Kettering city officials say their decision to send Mayor Don Patterson to China in 2010 is paying dividends as they expect a new deal for hundreds of jobs and a new $20 million facility to be completed soon.
The cost of the city sending councilmembers to far-flung conferences has decreased to around $10,000 this year, down from $28,239 in 2007, according to a Dayton Daily News review of city records.
The newspaper found travel costs going down — officials say they’re trying to deal with a tightened budget — but also found little oversight on the council level of of approving travel money before it’s spent.
The most frequent flyer in recent years is Patterson, who was reimbursed $6,917 since the beginning of 2011 for trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers and meet with fellow mayors. He also has attended conferences in Georgia and Arizona.
The China trip cost $11,994, mostly for airfare, but also included event registration, travelers insurance and the cost of making international calls from Patterson’s cell phone.
The China trip was part of a delegation led by the Ohio Department of Development consisting of mostly business leaders to build ties to China. No other representatives from any local governments participated, according to state records.
“We were asked to go by the governor’s office and the Ohio Department of Development,” Patterson said. “There was a company that was looking between Ohio and Michigan and the Ohio site was Kettering.”
That company was Beijing West Industries, which bought the automotive brake assets from bankrupt Delphi. Patterson said he met with the company’s CEO while overseas.
The company has since decided to consolidate its offices from Moraine and Michigan in Kettering, adding up to 350 jobs in the Miami Valley Research Park at a new $20 million facility, city officials said.
“We have a package (of tax incentives) out there and hopefully in the next — I never thought it would take two years — but in the next 30 days we hope they will secure their financing and proceed,” Patterson said. “For the city of Kettering the plus side to it is about $650,000 to $700,000 in income taxes a year.”
Patterson said travel usually is discussed at council workshops, though trips do not require a vote from the council. As long as a councilmember stays within the council’s travel budget, he or she can take the trip and get reimbursed with the city manager’s approval.
When contacted for this story, for example, two councilmembers were not aware that Patterson was planning to spend $2,069 traveling to Anaheim, Calif., next week to accept an award on behalf of the city from a national parks and recreation organization.
Councilmember Ashley Webb said he sees value in sending the mayor and other councilmembers to conferences and lobbying events, and that they’ve cut down on the number of people they send.
“There’s money in the budget for it, and the city manager is watching those dollars,” Webb said. But, he added: “It’s definitely something I think it would make sense for us to take a closer look at.”
The only other international trip in recent years paid for by the city involved sending someone from the Kettering Sister City Council to the international sister cities conference in Belfast, Ireland, in 2009. That trip cost $2,003.
City Manager Mark Schwieterman said the city pays to send someone to this conference every year and this was the last time it was out of the country.
City council has spent $102,956 on travel since the beginning of 2007 and is expected to spend $10,611 this year. The total citywide travel budget is $190,000 this year and has totaled $987,211 since 2007.
The city of Dayton, by comparison, spent $9,296 on travel for its mayor and city council last year. The last year Dayton’s city council traveled internationally was in 2008, when one councilman went to Croatia at a cost of $997 and the mayor and another councilmember took trips to Israel costing $12,236.
Patterson’s trip this week comes as voters in Kettering weigh two city charter amendments that would establish term limits for city council and reduce city council pay.
“It’s important that in these times of very difficult economic circumstances for many, many residents of Kettering that any tax dollars that are spent, whether for this type of transaction or for anything, is done very frugally and with clear public benefit,” said Ron Alban, spokesman for the group leading the charter effort.